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Scientists battle celebrities, a quantum ‘unconference’ and space travel, past and future


By Tushna Commissariat

Its been a strange week for scientists and celebrities popping up together on the world stage – what with rapper B.o.B and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s very public face-off about the former’s conspiracy theory claims of the Earth being flat  – but it didn’t end there. In a celebrity trio that is even more surprising, physicist Stephen Hawking has come together with Hollywood actor Paul Rudd, (most recently starring in the film Ant-Man) in a video narrated by Keanu Reeves. Earlier this week, Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter hosted the event One Entangled Evening: a Celebration of Richard Feynman’s Legacy. As a promo of sorts for the event – which had special appearances by Rudd, Reeves, Hawking, Bill Gates and even Yuri Milner, apart from actual quantum physicists such as John Preskill and Dave Wineland – they filmed the above video with Rudd and Hawking battling each other at a game of quantum chess. You will have to watch the video to see who wins.

As rapper B.oB’s wild and unscientific claims have had so much publicity this week, its an interesting time to look into the science of conspiracy theories and just how viable it would be to keep something big under wraps – especially if its the size of the Moon. As we all know, a secret is one of the most difficult things to keep hidden, thanks to human nature and the fact the someone someday will spill the beans, and the chances of this happening increase with the number of people who know the secret. Mathematician David Grimes from the University of Oxford now has an equation that proves exactly that, after his recent study looked at how long any cover-up would actually survive before someone revealed it to the public. According to his calculations, if the Moon landings truly had been faked, it would have all unravelled a mere 3.7 years after the act. You can learn more about his study over at the BBC website and read his published paper in the PLOS One journal.

Many if not most of you will have been to a conference at some stage of your careers, but have you been to an “unconference”? In a global first, the Quantum Unconference 2015 was recently held in Lapland. Described as a “participant-driven meeting where the emphasis is on discussion instead of presentations”, such gatherings aim to keep everything a bit more casual. Over at the JPhys+ blog, read an interview with unconference participant and theoretical physicist Teiko Heinosaari who is at the University of Turku in Finland and see what he had to say about this unconventional meeting.

This week sadly marks the 30th anniversary of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster. On 28 January 1986 NASA’s Challenger shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, to break apart seconds later, killing all seven astronauts within. The disaster grounded NASA’s shuttle programme for three years after and left an indelible mark on it. The Popular Mechanics website has put together “An oral history of the space shuttle Challenger disaster” while NPR’s Howard Berkes talks to the Challenger engineer Bob Ebeling, who still blames himself despite being one of four engineers who tried to stop the launch the night before.

And finally, from disasters of the past to dreams of the future, planetary scientist Ian Crawford from the University of London is urging us to start looking towards building the “starships” of the future. Crawford, who is a scientific consultant for Project Icarus, says that the sheer distance to even the nearest stars means that we must start developing our technologies today – you can read more over at the Conversation website.

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